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Swimming With the Fishes

Michael McElroy

Dolphins fans have never swallowed humility easily.

By all rights, Fins fans should be some of the loudest Yankees-level gasbags in the country. Since 1970, when the American Football League merged with the National Football League to create the modern NFL, no team has won more games, and in all of pro sports, only the NBA's Los Angeles Lakers have a better winning percentage. No team can boast such a statistical prodigy as Dan Marino, save for Jerry Rice's 49ers. Don Shula set a standard for bland longevity that only The Today Show can match. The team has had just three losing seasons out of the past 36.

And yet...

In the 2000s, the Dolphins have played just four playoff games, winning one and losing three blowouts, including a 62-7 stomping by the Jaguars six seasons ago, a game that ended the careers of both Marino and Coach Jimmy Johnson.

Since then, it has been years of wandering the desert. Remember the Jets coming back from a 30-7 deficit to win an infamous Monday Night Football game in 2000? What about the Raiders shutting out the Fins in the playoffs that year?

There was Ricky Williams amassing 2,216 yards from scrimmage in 2003, then flaking out in 2004 to pursue a life of meditation, travel, and the kine bud.

The lowly Arizona Cardinals broke a 17-game road losing streak in Dolphin Stadium in 2004, the worst of a franchise-record 12 losses that year.

"We did not play any harder when we were winning ten and 11 a year, I promise you that," hapless Head Coach Dave Wannstedt said after the Cardinals game. "We did not play any harder than we did today. That's what rips your heart out."

The coach quit three days later. That was pretty much the highlight of the season for many Dolphins fans.

This year, though. Ahh.

The pieces may at last be in place. After struggling mightily early last season, the Fins enter this season on a six-game winning streak, the league's longest, save for Super Bowl champ Steelers. They have a young hoss of a running back. A head coach seemingly spawned from the very union of Foot and Ball. Offensive linemen who actually know one another. The jiggliest cheerleaders in sports. Brilliant specialists. Accomplished receivers. Experienced defenders. A stadium featuring two of the largest high-definition video screens in the universe. The Dolphins even have their own $8 million man, Daunte Culpepper, a starting quarterback with — get this — athletic ability.

(Little-known indicator of how relatively stacked this team is: The highest-rated Dolphin in Electronic Arts' Madden NFL 07, John Madden's best-selling video-game take on the NFL season, is fullback Fred Beasley. In truth, Beasley spent the end of training camp fending off Darian Barnes for the starting job. That's roster depth, kids.)

But for this reason more than any, in the modern NFL, when Rams and Ravens and Falcons and Bucs and Panthers all go to the big game, when the choke-artist Broncos win two straight and the sad-sack Patriots win three of four, when Trent freakin' Dilfer goes to Disney World (Baltimore Ravens, Super Bowl XXXV), the Dolphins simply must be next in line.

The Dolphins are due. Overdue, in fact. Since the 'Niners thumped Miami in Super Bowl XIX, a dozen different teams have won Super Bowls, and nine others have at least been there. Since the Dolphins lost the 1992 AFC Championship to the Buffalo Bills, every AFC team but Miami and two expansion teams (the Browns and Texans) has played for the conference title.

The Super Bowl has been played in Miami five times since the Dolphins last won it, and it will be in Dolphin Stadium come February 2007. Perhaps the thought of watching the Patriots hoist another Lombardi Trophy at the 50-yard line of his home stadium prompted Chris Chambers to say in March: "They're playing the Super Bowl here next year, and I'll be damned if we're not the ones playing it in our own stadium."

Here's to irrational exuberance, Chris Chambers not being damned, and Fins fans returning to their rightful perch as entitled sports dorks.

In the pages ahead, you'll find a breakdown of the elements that will determine whether the Dolphins can advance past yet another playoff-missing 9-7 campaign. Remember, you can't get this kind of analysis just anywhere, and chances are, you wouldn't want it anyway.

Jointly Speaking: We Kneed It

Commentators who are high on the Dolphins this year always temper their encomiums with a warning: If Daunte Culpepper's reconstructed right knee isn't ship-shape, this team will be lucky to limp to .500. How vital is Culpepper's knee? It has even overshadowed the quarterback's other high-profile blowout last season, as Google search results show:

Number of results for "Daunte Culpepper" and:

"knee injury": 66,700

"knee and questions": 76,800

"tore three ligaments": 16,000

"bum knee": 535

"horrific knee injury": 1,270

"Minnesota Vikings boat sex": 30,000

"Love boat" scandal: 3,010

"Lake Minnetonka" party: 670

"Booze cruise": 364

"Strippers and nipple": 167

"Throwing dice alibi": 29

Bronzed Bruiser

This season, the Dolphins bid farewell to Junior Seau, one of the all-time great linebackers to prowl the gridiron and who no doubt will be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in a few short years. As a San Diego Charger for 13 seasons, Seau was a 12-time Pro Bowler. But his three seasons in Miami were tainted by injuries and one infamous quote at a team banquet in which he explained his affection for his teammates: "I would say love and everybody would say 'You're a faggot,' but I'm not." The Dolphins released him in March to clear salary-cap space, leading Seau to retire for two whole days in August before signing with the Dolphins' division rival Patriots.

Yet South Florida can hold no bitterness.

Herewith, we imagine Seau's bust in Canton: Tiaina Seau Jr.... Drafted fifth overall in 1990 out of USC... made a dozen straight Pro Bowls with the San Diego Chargers... named to 1990s team of the decade... racked up more than 1,350 tackles, 15 interceptions, and 50 sacks... closed his career with a few nondescript years in Miami and New England... not a faggot.

The Sting of Truth

Genius. Hard-ass. Iceberg. If Nick Saban were a variety of fruit, USA Today's Larry Weisman recently wrote, he'd be "tart and tangy, even pungent," a descriptor that joins a long list of appellations for Saban. In truth, the coach is nothing if not a game-day poet, given to flights of verbal flourish that would stir even the Bard himself to genuflection. Do you think you know your Sabanisms? Then see if you can pair the stoic coach's comments from last season with the game that precipitated them:

1. "I saw a lack of execution in technical fundamental things that created a lot of frustration because of a lack of success."

2. "It's important how you respond to good things and bad things... This is one game in a long season."

3. "The most important thing that we still want to promote with our team is, get better as a team, improve as a team, play the best football we can play, and build for the future of what we want to try to accomplish here."

4. "We need to improve our ability to play with discipline, especially on the road, especially in the beginning of games."

A. A comeback win over the Jets last season that briefly put the Dolphins in the playoff picture

B. The nadir of last season, a 22-0 loss to the lowly Cleveland Browns

C. A dreadful loss to Buffalo in which Miami set a team record with 18 penalties

D. An opening-day thumping of the favored Broncos last year, Saban's first win as an NFL head coach

FUN FAKT!

When Coach Saban declined a dinner invitation from George W. Bush in July, he said it was to focus on preparing his team. Nice try, coach! As everyone knows, true conservatives loathe this deficit-inflating, warmongering president — and Saban, who when down 9-0 last year in Cleveland ordered a punt from the Browns' 33-yard line, is nothing if not stunningly conservative!

Five-Finger Indicators

Nowhere is the Dolphins' swoon from perennial title contender to also-ran more apparent than in the foam novelty hands that fans have worn to symbolize each season. Here are illustrations of each year's most popular stadium hand along with the season record (2006 projected): Click for PDF

FUN FAKT!

Ricky Williams may have failed yet another drug test, fled to play with the Canadian Football League's Toronto Argonauts, and suffered a broken arm during a game in July. But take heart! Quantum physicists have confirmed that in an alternate universe in which Williams postponed recreational drug use until after retirement, turf toe injuries would have held him to only 273 yards and one touchdown on 87 carries this season — scarcely worth the $545,000 salary he forfeited!

Road to XLI

Look, we're not saying this Dolphins team will be one of the greatest of all time. But these plucky marine mammals have a chance to be the greatest Dolphins team since, well, the last great Dolphins team — especially since half of their opponents were last season's dregs (with records of 6-10 or worse). If our projection of the season highlights stands, Daunte should be going to that Disney nirvana in January:

Thursday, September 7, at Pittsburgh Steelers

Why the Dolphins will win: The Dolphins have won 12 of their past 14 opening-day games.

Why they could lose: The Steelers have won one of the past one Super Bowls.

Edge: Miami, by a busload

Sunday, October 8, at New England Patriots

Why the Dolphins will win: For some reason, Tom Brady rarely plays well against Miami.

Why they could lose: For some reason, Tom Brady is the player of the century so far.

Edge: Miami, by a razor's edge

Sunday, October 15, at New York Jets

Why the Dolphins will win: The Jets will be J!-U!-S!-T! Dreadful! Dreadful! Dreadful!

Why they could lose: The Dolphins love playing down to these guys.

Edge: Miami, by a Meadowlandslide

Thursday, November 23, at Detroit Lions

Why the Dolphins will win: Because the Lions are their scheduled opponent.

Why they could lose: Sudden, bitter depression brought on by spending Thanksgiving in Detroit.

Edge: Miami, by a drumstick

Sunday, December 3, vs. Jacksonville Jaguars

Why the Dolphins will win: Jags won't score four touchdowns of 50 or more yards, as they needed to beat Fins in preseason.

Why they could lose: Simple mascot head-to-head dictates that a field full of jaguars will have its way with even the most securely helmeted Dolphins.

Edge: Miami, by a bottlenose

Sunday, December 10, vs. New England Patriots

Why the Dolphins will win: Patriots' traditional spate of injuries forces erstwhile Dolphins linebacker Junior Seau into lineup.

Why they could lose: SEAU SMASH!

Edge: Miami, by the hair of their chinny chin chins

Sunday, December 31, at Indianapolis Colts

Why the Dolphins will win: After Peyton Manning's arrest for trafficking human organs, the Colts complain of "distractions." Babies.

Why they could lose: Reverence for undefeated 1972 Dolphins.

Edge: Miami, by a champagne cork

Projected record: 16-0. The Fins will then thump the Jaguars in the Divisional Playoffs and scratch past the Broncos to advance to Super Bowl XLI, where they will dispatch a likewise upstart Arizona Cardinals squad. The Earth will tremble and crack open, allowing the ghost of Joe Robbie to bestow an ectoplasm-covered Lombardi Trophy to Saban, who will fold his bottom lip back against his teeth, nod, wave, and be in bed by 10:30 p.m., to arise the next morning and begin scheming next year's delayed blitz schemes, leaving a congratulatory call from President Bush to kick over to voicemail.

FUN FAKT!

In 2005, Hurricane Wilma washed out the October 21 game against the Chiefs — and in 2006, former Miami Hurricane Brock Berlin washed out of Dolphins camp!

The M Rating

If his knee is a question mark, to deploy a football cliché, Daunte Culpepper's arm is an exclamation point, underlined, with arrows pointing to it. He is — despite a worrisome case of fumblitis (career: 1/game) and a penchant for making tabloid headlines — the first decent signal-caller the Dolphins have employed in the six seasons since Marino put himself out to pasture on HBO. But just how do he and some of the other Miami QBums' stints in orange and teal stack up to Marino, the NFL's all-time leader in completions, yards, and touchdowns? We rank them on a scale of 1 to 10 Marinos (if you wanted rationality, you'd be reading another publication): Click for PDF

FUN FAKT!

Mike Mularkey resigned as head coach of the Bills last season, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family. When the Dolphins hired him as offensive coordinator just days later, cynics scoffed at his apparent fib. But Fort Lauderdale is indeed Mularkey's hometown — he played prep ball at Northeast High School — so the cynics can piss off!

Divorce Becomes You

Damned shame about habitual All-Pro defensive end Jason Taylor's wife, Katina, filing for divorce this summer. For one, the couple has three kids, all under age 4, and it suggests that an April 30 road rage incident in which Taylor was mildly, um, stabbed couldn't have come at a worse time. (Though talk about poise: On the tape of the 911 call, Taylor is heard calming his flustered wife and addressing the operator as "ma'am." He don't play on Sundays for nothing!)

The soap-opera wrinkle is, Katina is the sister of linebacker/brick-house Zach Thomas, the only Dolphins player with a longer team tenure than Taylor's. The Sun-Sentinel's Ethan Skolnick last month transcribed Taylor's reaction to the obvious inquiry: "'As far as the question about the locker room, I think it's ridiculous that anyone would even think that,' Taylor said, slapping the podium twice upon storming off. 'We're professionals, guys. '"

Then a display of professionalism: storming out of an interview. Still, as foul and wretched a thing as divorces can be (especially those in which the couple owns a yacht named for the wife), history shows that they can portend good tidings:

Andre Agassi didn't win a singles title in 1997, the year he married Brooke Shields, and slid to number 141 in the world rankings. After their split two years later, Agassi finished 1999 ranked number one in the world.

Lance Armstrong and his ex, Kristin, filed for divorce in 2003, after Armstrong's fifth Tour de France victory. The following summer, pedaling without the ol' ball and chain, he made it a round half-dozen.

Henry VIII severed ties with and the neck of Anne Boleyn in 1536. He then married the more homely and less feisty Jane Seymour, who gave birth to the male heir he never could sire with Boleyn. The lad, Edward, took over kingly duties upon his father's death nine years later.

Brad dumped Jen, upgraded to Angelina. Hasn't anchored a watchable movie since Snatch, doesn't seem to mind.

Early in the 2001-02 season, Michael Jordan's wife, Juanita, filed for divorce. The aging Jordan went on a mini-tear, notching five 30-point games and two 40-point games before the couple announced a month later that they were going to reconcile. After the next season, Jordan stopped tarnishing his legend and hung up his Nikes. Miracles do happen.

How Reporters Keep Track

Ever wonder why preseason football predictions are so dicey? Could be league parity, volatile gambling lines, preseason injuries, group-think idiocy. Or a clue could lie in how the beat writers are forced to cover the team during training camp:

1:20 p.m., August 21, Dolphins training facility media room:

Flak Mike Pehanich announces that it's time to go watch practice. Writers and photographers turn from Yankees-Red Sox game on ESPN and trudge to field.

1:22 p.m., northwest corner of bleachers

Media relations head Harvey Greene tells the half-dozen or so reporters that they have 24 minutes to observe practice. The Miami Herald's Armando Salguero, seeing that the players on the field are actually stretching, protests that they're not practicing. Greene reminds Salguero that group activities also count as practice time. "It's the same 24 minutes we got last year," he tells the writer. "You just recycle your bitching and I'll recycle my answers."

1:23 p.m.

The writers spend the remainder of their allotted time trying to count the players on the field, to account for any absences, injuries, position changes, or alien abductions. To an outsider, it sounds like they're playing keno as they read jersey numbers and check names on their rosters:

"Twenty, 21 in red."

"What about 9 and 10?"

"Thirty-six."

"We got 36."

On the field below, linemen smack a metal tackling dummy.

"Forty-seven, 48, 49? Tight ends?"

"Two linebackers. Forty-eight and 49."

"What number is missing?"

"We still need 48, 49, and 87."

"Forty-eight's wearing 87."

Coach Saban directs the linebackers. The scribes are far enough away that he's audible, just not intelligible. Not that they're paying attention.

"Eighty-nine? No, there's two 89s out there."

"Yeah, but you've got two 89s offensively too."

"That's the problem. You've got guys with different numbers back there."

"You've got a guy wearing 26. That's another 26."

1:45 p.m.

Greene herds everyone back inside. The writers sit in their cubicled coop and debate whether Pete Rose or Vlad Guerrero was the greatest former Montreal Expos player. (Such a discussion can go on way, way longer than you'd think.)

Two hours later

In comes Saban, his taut ankles and stringy legs — rotisserie-chicken tan — poking out from his shorts. He talks for 14 minutes, illuminating nothing. "I think what we're trying to accomplish here," he says at one point, "is procedure."

FUN FAKT!

Special-teams chameleon Wes Welker was tenth in the NFL in total return yardage last season — but he led all Dolphins receivers in whiteness!


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